by Melissa Donovan
Characters are the heart and soul of every story.
Almost every great story is about people. Plot, setting, theme, and other elements of fiction are secondary to realistic characters that an audience can connect with on an intellectual or emotional level.
There are exceptions, of course. Some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but they never seem to achieve the massive popularity that stories with rich, layered characters achieve. Why do fans adore Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen? Because they feel like real people.
We connect with characters in fiction for any number of reasons. Maybe the character reminds us a little of ourselves. We might love her because she represents who we want to be, or we might hate her because she reminds us of the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. Some characters feel like friends; others remind us of our enemies. We might admire a character’s heroism and relate to his philosophy, or we might admonish his acts of destruction and hate.
Some writers argue that it’s not necessary for readers to connect or identify with characters in a story. That might be true to some extent, but the most beloved stories throughout the history of literature are populated with characters we love and characters we love to hate. There’s something to be said for making readers care.
Character Writing Tips
Readers won’t care about characters unless they are believable. So how do we make our characters realistic? Why do the most celebrated characters seem so real even though they are made up? How have some writers managed to render animals, aliens, and even inanimate objects into characters that we embrace emotionally?
The answer is simple: the best characters come with all the flaws, quirks, and baggage that real people possess. They are not just names on a page. They have pasts and personalities, and they are unique.
Here are some character writing tips to help you develop characters that feel like real people:
- Backstory: We are born a certain way, but our life experiences continually mold and shape us. Each character has a life before the story begins. What is it?
- Dialogue: The way we talk depends on the language we speak and where we live (or grew up) but there’s also something unique to each person’s style of speaking. We repeat certain words and phrases, inflect certain syllables, and make certain gestures while we speak.
- Physical Description: Our primary method of identifying each other is the way we look; hair and eye color, height and weight, scars and tattoos, and the style of clothing we wear are all part of our physical descriptions.
- Name: Esmerelda doesn’t sound like a soccer mom, and Joe doesn’t sound like an evil sorcerer. Make sure the names you choose for your characters match their personalities and the roles they play in the story.
- Goals: Some say that a character’s goals drive the entire story. He wants to slay the dragon; she wants to overthrow the evil empire. Goals can be small (the character wants a specific job) or big (the character is trying to save the world). Come up with a mix of small and large goals for each character.
- Strengths and Weaknesses: Villains sometimes do nice things and heroes occasionally take the low road. What are your character’s most positive and negative behaviors and personality traits?
- Friends and Family: These are the people in our inner circles, and they have played important roles in shaping our personalities and our lives. Who are your characters’ friends and family before the story starts? What new friends will they meet once the story begins?
- Nemesis: A nemesis is someone with whom we are at odds. This character doesn’t have to be a villain, but the goals of the nemesis definitely interfere with your main character’s goals.
- Position in the World: What do your characters do for a living? What are their daily lives like? Where do they live? What is a character’s role or position among his or her friends, family, or coworkers?
- Skills and Abilities: A character’s skills and abilities can get them out of a tight spot or prevent them from being able to get out of a tight spot. Skills can be useless or they can come in handy. Does your character have an education or special training? What can they do?
- Gestures, Mannerisms, and Quirks: One character chews her nails while watching movies. Another runs his hand through his hair when he’s trying to figure something out. Give your characters identifiable quirks and behaviors, like real people.
- Fears: An old fiction writing trick is to figure out what your character is most afraid of, and then make the character face it. We all have fears; characters should, too.
How to Put These Character Writing Tips into Practice
Characters need to be detailed and complicated in order to seem real. These character tips give you a lot to consider, but how do you put them into practice?
You could tackle each idea as a separate exercise. Write your character’s backstory one day. The next day, do a page of dialogue to see how the character speaks. Then spend some time looking for the perfect name for your character. If you work through all these tips as separate exercises, you’ll end up with a robust character sketch, and your character will be ready to enter the plot of your story.
Character sketches are by no means mandatory. You could also start writing the draft of your manuscript and see how each of these elements develops organically for each character. During revisions, you can check your narrative against this list to make sure the characters are consistent and have all the depth of real people.
How do you create characters? Do you start with a character sketch or do you just start writing? Do you have a checklist (like the one above) to help you know and understand your characters? Got any character writing tips to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep writing.